A bonus episode concerning the Praetorian Guard's musical and murderous relationship with Rome's fabulous fifth Emperor, Nero. An epilogue to E10: "Kingbreakers"
A bonus episode concerning the Praetorian Guard's musical and murderous relationship with Rome's fabulous fifth Emperor, Nero. An epilogue to E10: "Kingbreakers"
Strauss, Barry. Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine.2019
De La Bodeyere, Guy. Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard. 2017
Rankov, Boris. The Praetorian Guard. 1994
Bingham, Sandra. The Praetorian Guard. 2012
Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars. AD 121
Dando-Collins, Stephen. Caligula: The Mad Emperor of Rome. 2019.
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Complete Works. 1994.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted. I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
Today we’re going to be doing something a little different. This will not be a full episode, as you’ve probably noticed from the much-shorter timestamp. No this is actually going to be a bonus episode to accompany our 10th full episode, “Kingbreakers”.
This is part of a larger bonus series I’d like to start doing going forward, whenever time allows or inspiration strikes. The idea came from the fact that when I’m writing scripts for the full episodes, there’s usually tons and tons of really great stuff I have to leave on the cutting room floor in the service of brevity and narrative cohesion. Things that were super interesting or entertaining, but were kinda extraneous to the story or felt like self-indulgent tangents.
Well this new bonus series, which I’m calling “Epilogues”, is all about the tangents.
Today’s epilogue is a continuation of our episode about the Praetorian Guard and their messed-up relationship with the Emperors of Rome. In “Kingbreakers”, we talked about Augustus and how he founded the Praetorians as an institution. We talked about Tiberius and how he almost had the throne stolen from him by his scheming Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus. Then we talked about the insanity of Caligula’s reign and the conspiracy that finally succeeded in bringing him down. We also gave a passing nod to the black sheep Claudius and how the Senate and the Praetorians elevated him to the throne after his nephew Caligula’s assassination.
And that seemed like a good place to end things, especially through the lens of the Praetorian Guard. But then it started to bug me. We charted the course of Rome’s first four emperors, but we didn’t get to talk about the fifth:
Nero is arguably one of Rome’s most famous and controversial rulers. He’s the one behind the “fiddling while Rome burned” anecdote, if you’re not familiar.
And, for our purposes, he had a very interesting, very musical relationship with the Praetorian Guard, that institution that had wrought so much havoc on the political stage of Imperial Rome. So in our inaugural bonus episode, we’re going to spend a little time with Rome’s favorite wannabe rock star, the Emperor Nero, as well as his his bodyguards-turned-roadies, the deadly Praetorians.
Needless to say, if you haven’t listened to Episode 10, Kingbreakers, I’d recommend you do that before diving into this one. There won’t be a lot of handholding or recapping in this; these are meant to be lean and mean.
With that being said, welcome to our first Conflicted Epilogue: Roadies for Nero.
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Our drama begins, as most dramas do, with the opening of a curtain.
While the freshly assassinated Emperor Caligula’s body was lying in bloody pieces on a bathhouse floor, his Uncle Claudius was playing the most high-stakes game of hide-and-seek in ancient history.
Claudius was scared. He could hear the shouts, and the screams. The clinking swords and the slap of sandals from his hiding spot. He was shaking, trembling behind a curtain, trying not to make any noise, trying not to breathe.
When the insane tyrant Caligula had been cut to pieces by members of his own elite bodyguard, lead by the high voice and higher ideals of Cassius Chaerea, Claudius had seen it from a distance. From the other end of the long hallway in which the Praetorian assassins had ambushed the Emperor.
And Claudius knew that he was next. He was related by blood to the dead Emperor. The Praetorians would soon kill Caligula’s wife and infant daughter. If they’d kill a baby to extinguish that bloodline, they’d have no problem killing the crippled, middle-aged black sheep of the Imperial clan.
Claudius was terrified. And panicking. So he hides behind a curtain. But he forgot one important detail when choosing his hiding spot. The curtain did not reach all the way to the floor. His feet were sticking out. And suddenly a Praetorian Guardsman, who was prowling the palace grounds, yanks open the curtain.
Claudius knows he’s about to die. This is it. But, according to legend, instead of killing him, the Praetorian Guardsmen extends his hand, and says “My lord, let go of thoughts of saving yourself. Come with me and accept the throne of your ancestors.”
Now, that very foreshadow-y bit of theatre probably never happened. At least not in that way. But whatever the case, Claudius was going to take the throne of his ancestors, and become the 4th Emperor of Rome after Caligula.
It all happens very fast; the Praetorian Guard takes Claudius back to their fortress. Caligula’s assassins are ostracized and executed, and within 48 hours Claudius is hailed as Emperor.
Our story is not about Claudius, though. And I apologize if any Claudius fans feel I’ve give him the short shrift. But he is an important piece of connective tissue to Nero. So I wanted to give him his brief moment in the metaphorical sun.
But how do we go from Claudius the 4th Emperor, to Nero the 5th emperor?
Well, Nero rises to power chiefly through the efforts of his mother, a woman named Agrippina. And she would prove to be one of the most incredible stage moms in the ancient world. So who is she to us?
Well, Agrippina was Caligula’s youngest sister. Yes, one of *those* sisters. Now you’d think being that closely related to the insane tyrant Caligula would be a death sentence. But like Claudius, Agrippina escaped the long knives of the Praetorian Guard. Caligula’s wife and baby daughter would be the only members of his family who suffered his fate. And Agrippina was safer than ever now that her Uncle Claudius was the new Emperor.
With her safety ensures, Agrippina could focus on raising her 11-year-old son. A boy named Nero.
Nero was a precocious little tyke who had a ceaseless fascination with entertainment and the arts. He loved chariot racing, wrestling, and dancing. But most of all, he loved music. He was a good singer – even the hostile sources acknowledge his talent – and he dedicated hours and hours into learning how to play a type of stringed instrument called the lyre.
It's hard not to envision teenage Nero plucking away at this thing in his bedroom, trying to learn the Ancient equivalent of “stairway to Heaven”. All those hours fantasizing about driving chariots around the Circus Maximus or playing to crowds in a Roman theatre, must’ve been a welcome distraction from the scheming adults and petty politicking in the Roman imperial court.
Teenage Nero was developing into a talented musician and a self-described artist, but his mother, Agrippina had different plans. She was grooming him not for the stage, but the throne.
Claudius, the crippled but surprisingly capable Emperor, took Agrippina as his wife. And yes for those doing the math at home, she did in fact marry her Uncle. This was just as scandalous in the Roman world as it would be in ours. The Roman public thought this was gross. Claudius even had to convince the Senate to pass a special law allowing it.
The average Roman citizen might’ve been skeeved out, but Agrippina was perfectly fine with her new marital situation and all the responsibilities it entailed. Because it meant that her son Nero was all but assured to be the heir to the throne. Claudius officially adopted the kid when he was 12 years old.
There’s no doubt that Agrippina was an amazing woman.
She was clever and charming and just as ambitious as any man in Rome. But she reminds me a lot of stage parents you might see in the entertainment industry. Selfishly pushing their kids into something they don’t really want, for their own profit and power. To Agrippina, Nero was more than a son. He was a meal ticket.
A few years go by, and when Nero is 17 years old, his adopted UncleDad Claudius dies mysteriously. Like I mentioned in “Kingbreakers” , anytime something like this happens, people immediately suspect foul play. All fingers pointed to Agrippina. But she’d planned for this eventuality. She’d spent years wheeling and dealing, making friends and greasing palms within the Praetorian guard.
So when Claudius drops dead, either from a poisonous mushroom or a regular mushroom laced with poison – again, hard to say – the Praetorians immediately throw their support behind Nero and he becomes the 5thEmperor of Rome. The curtain had closed on Claudius, and opened on a young, flamboyant 17-year old who desperately craved the spotlight.
Agrippina had succeeded in elevating her son to the throne; and now she aimed to be the power behind it.
If we were making lazy pop culture comparisons, which I totally am / which I am not above at all, Agrippina bears more than a passing resemblance to Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones. Incest – check. Overbearing mother - Check. Aspiring authoritarian who outplays all the men around her - check.
Agrippina had designs to be the supreme power in Rome. An Empress. But that could never happen. Like, ever. Rome’s political ecosystem was mind-bogglingly sexist. Elected or symbolic office was an impossibility. But the women of Rome exerted influence in other ways. If they could control and manipulate the men around them, they could achieve some semblance of self-determination.
Agrippina’s sway over the court was so absolute that she even got her own personal contingent of the Praetorian Guard who protected her day and night – which was unique for her position. She was an Empress in all but name.
But all of this power was dependent on her ability to maintain unrivaled influence over the Emperor. To keep him like a bird in a gilded cage. As long as she could control her sweet baby boy, Nero, Agrippina was the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire.
Well, Nero did not want to be controlled. Ask any teenager if they want to have every facet of their life controlled by their Mom. He must’ve rolled his eyes at the fact that his watchword, or passcode, for his Praetorian Guard switchover was optima mater – which is Latin for “#1 Mom”, in Latin.
Nero was an extremely passionate, talented young man. He was also vain and petty and prone to jealousy. One of the objects of his jealousy, was a young woman named Poppaea Sabina. Poppaea was the Instagram influencer of her day. Beautiful, glamorous, and famous. Her beauty was so well known that she even had a brand of Roman cosmetics named after her during her lifetime.
The vapid, possessive Nero became obsessed with this ancient influencer Poppaea. Everything about her fascinated him. Especially the fact that she was forbidden fruit. Because Poppaea was married already. Not only that, she was married to the Captain of Nero’s Praetorian Guard. Uh-oh. And by this time, Nero was married too. His mom had picked out a sensible, suitable bride for him.
But nothing about Nero was sensible or suitable, so he and Poppaea do the responsible thing….and start having a hot & heavy affair.
Nero’s mother, Agrippina, was not happy about this at all.
An emperor with an unstable, politically dangerous love life meant an unstable, politically dangerous Emperor. Agrippina’s relationship with her son took a nosedive, and the two bickered constantly over his behavior. Nero felt stifled by his mother, trapped by her. And he began to resent her.
Agrippina should have been very very worried when Nero stripped her Praetorian escort from her. Without them, her physical safety was in jeopardy from all sides. And whether she knew it or not, her days were numbered.
Supposedly, Nero’s mistress Poppaea convinces him that he would never be free to evolve into the superstar that he truly was, until his domineering mother was in the ground. Nero agrees and decides he was not willing to wait for nature to take its course. He commands his Praetorian Guards to assassinate his mother, Agrippina.
But they tell him, no. They refuse. So deep was the respect for this woman, that even the Guard wouldn’t touch her.
Unfazed, Nero turns to a friend in the Roman Navy. Together they hatch a plan to sabotage a ship that Agrippina would be traveling on. The ship was rigged to collapse and sink once it was out in open water. It works like a charm, but no one counted on Agrippina being a very good swimmer, and she makes it to shore.
Nero initially panics.
If Agrippina realized that he’d tried to have her killed, her revenge would be swift and ruinous. But Nero has a Plan B. He sends ordinary soldiers, not Praetorians, to kill her. And they succeed where the elaborate collapsible ship did not. The Senate was outraged by her death, but Nero insists that she’d been planning to have *him* killed, and that he was justified in ordering her death.
Unshackled from his powerful, controlling mother, Nero was free to do what he really wanted. To shine bright like the star he really was.
In his book Ten Caesars, Barry Strauss describes Emperor Nero as “a genius in public relations; a communications giant.” He was an entertainer to his core, and the Roman public loved to be entertained.
Over the next several years, Nero throws a series of lavish public games. All the staples of Roman entertainment - gladiator fights, chariot racing, wrestling, theatre, you name it. These festivals and games became so linked with Nero that they became known as the “Neronia”.
Nero even gave gifts away to the audience. Expensive stuff. As Strauss writes:
The audience received gifts—often extravagant gifts, including jewels, horses, slaves, and houses, making Nero at least the equal of any modern television game show host.
But Nero wasn’t content to just be a spectator.
In a move that horrified the Roman elite and delighted the plebs, Nero actually participated in the games. He raced chariots around the Circus Maximus for crowds of as large as 200,000. For perspective, that’s more people than modern Super Bowls can manage to pack in.
And it’s not like this was just hollow propaganda. Chariot racing was a dangerous, life-threatening sport that required real skill, and unlucky charioteers died all the time on the tracks. Imagine Nascar with a heavy dose of Mad Max: Fury Road.
But Nero got off on this.
He was almost certainly an adrenaline junkie. And as for his protectors, the Praetorian Guard? They just had to sit tight and shrug it off. They could protect Nero from plots and backstabbing rivals, but an overturned chariot or a horse kick to the face would leave them unemployed in a matter of seconds.
Like the rest of Rome, all they could do was watch.
Despite his daredevil antics, Nero also had a softer side. He performed as an actor, poet, singer, and ballet dancer in giant amphitheaters for screaming crowds. In fact, he was the very first Roman emperor to do this – although Caligula had flirted with the idea during his reign.
But it’s worth noting, unlike our own Hollywood-obsessed society, actors were not esteemed in Roman times. Entertainers occupied the bottom rung of society, and it was considered a low and vulgar profession. But Nero was ahead of his time. He knew the best way to amplify the implicit celebrity of being Emperor was to pair it with the sleaziness of the spotlight.
And as for the Praetorians, they were obliged to play a unique role in all of this showmanship. They carried Nero’s lyre and other instruments to the venues like glorified roadies, and even packed the crowds with people who they paid to cheer especially loud when Nero took the stage. If you did not show an appropriate amount of enthusiasm for the Emperor’s performances, or maybe mentioned that this or that note had fallen a little flat – well, maybe you’d find yourself reevaluating your own musical tastes at a Praetorian black site.
It wasn’t all bread and circuses under Nero, though.
As generous and artistic as he was, he also had a very bad, often murderous temper. Just like Tiberius and Caligula, Nero had men put to death for even the slightest offences. He poisoned rivals at his own dinner table and acted shocked when they dropped dead facedown in their plates. It was a dramatic performance that rarely resulted in applause.
A big turning point for Nero – at least in his personal life - came a few years into his marriage to Poppaea - the cosmetics queen that his mother Agrippina had despised and Nero had lusted after so intensely. By this point, Poppaea was pregnant with Nero’s child. Well one night, the two got into an argument. No one knows what it was about, or what was said, but Nero gets more revved up than usual. And he kicks his pregnant wife in anger. Whatever he did, it was bad. Her internal injuries were so devastating that she had a miscarriage and died.
As Barry Strauss writes:
“It was said that she had prayed to die young, before she lost her good looks, and so she got her wish.”
It was the second important woman in his life who Nero murdered. First his own mother, then his wife.
But the most controversial and legacy-defining event of Nero’s reign came in the summer of 64 AD.
If you were specifically designing a city to suffer the maximum amount of damage in the event of a sudden, out-of-control fire, Rome would’ve been a perfect specimen. Narrow streets, packed apartment blocks, and very few wide open spaces to slow down the spread of flames. It was a miracle it hadn’t burned down already.
On the night of July 18th, 64 AD a fire starts in Rome. And it grows and grows and grows. It sweeps over all but four of the city’s fourteen districts, burning non-stop for six days. In less than a week, huge parts of the eternal city had been reduced to ashes.
When a disaster like this happens, lots of angry eyes turn towards the people in charge. This was the greatest public relations challenge of Nero’s life.
He cuts food prices to alleviate hunger and organizes temporary shelters, but the Roman people were deeply suspicious of Nero, and whether he had played any part in the starting of the fire. Nero’s ego was gargantuan, and there were rumors that he had deliberately started the fire to clear the way for a new city, which he could name after himself. The bitterness towards Nero was further intensified by rumors that during the fire, instead of organizing relief efforts, he had retreated to his private stage to sing and play his lyre while watching the flames. This is the source of the “fiddling while Rome burns” phrase.
But all of this was gossip, and Nero seems to have mustered a reasonable response to the disaster. He wasn’t even in Rome when the fire started. He only returned when he heard reports it was getting close to his palace.
Whatever really happened, Nero’s public image never recovers from this Great Fire of Rome.
Not long after, Nero gets intelligence reports of a major plot forming against him. Another partnership between the Senate and a faction within the Praetorian Guard. But Nero was determined not to suffer the same fate as his insane Uncle Caligula. He crushes the conspiracy in the crib, and as it turned out, 41 people were implicated in the plot – Senators and senior officers of the Praetorian Guard.
He had the traitors tortured and executed, and when he asked one Praetorian point blank why they had tried to remove him, the man replied:
No soldier was more loyal to you while you deserved to be loved. I began to hate you when you became the murderer of your mother and your wife, a charioteer, an actor, and an arsonist.”
From that point on, things get worse and worse for Nero. Rebellions spring up all over the Empire, and his power base in Rome shrinks to almost nothing. The audience had turned against him, and Nero the showman could not get them back on his side.
In his latter years, he really seems to have gone off the deep end. Ans he just completely retreats into fantasy. One of his more outrageous stunts involved a young man who Nero thought looked very similar to his dead wife Poppaea. So similar, that he ordered him to start dressing like her. And then he had the young man castrated and married him in a mock ceremony. No one knew if this was a sad, brutal joke or a sign of actual insanity. But at this point it didn’t matter.
Nero was done.
On June 9th, AD 68, the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the state. And the Praetorian Guard abandoned him. He begged a few of them to come with him as he fled into hiding. One just shook his head at Nero’s pathetic request and asked, “Is it so dreadful to die?”
Nero, alone, disgraced and abandoned, fled the city. Realizing he was out of options and that the Praetorian Guard, now controlled by the Senate, would soon be hot on his heels, he decided to commit suicide. Before he pushed a dagger into his own throat, Nero was supposed to have said:
“What an artist perishes in me”.
Nero was the fifth and final Roman emperor to be descended from Julius Caesar. After his death, the Empire fell into a yet another civil war, which resulted in an entirely new ruling family.
But the Praetorian Guard would survive all of this upheaval. It would outlive many more Emperors, good, bad, and insane. Until finally confronting its own bloody climax 250 years later at the battle of the Milvian Bridge.
The Praetorians had been a massively destabilizing force since their inception and many historians believe their constantly-shifting loyalty was a major cause in the eventual destruction of the Roman Empire. As historian Edward Gibbon wrote, the Praetorian Guard possessed a “ licentious fury” making them “ the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire.”
This has been a Conflicted Epilogue. Thanks for listening.
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